If you’ve ever been part of a big group of friends, or watched any reality show or TV series ever, you’ll know that friends fall in love with each other all the time. As viewers, we’re encouraged to cheer these romances on, even though it’s often a long, messy journey to the end. But time and time again, the silver screen assures us that these relationships are the strongest and most likely to last. And according to a recent study, it seems we may be mirroring that behavior IRL.
The study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, found that 68 percent of straight, cis people had been in relationships where they were friends before they were lovers, a figure that increased to 85 percent when it came to more diverse sexualities. Furthermore, nearly half said they would want to be friends with a future partner before they dated them, preferring that to meeting someone online or in a bar. The report is one of a select few that delves into what its authors call the “friends-first initiation” — in the past, researchers mainly focused on “dating-initiation relationships,” studying the “initial spark of attraction that kindles between two strangers for the first time.” Thus, there’s not much research on friends-first romance, so it’s unclear if it creates better or worse relationships than when two soused strangers meet at last call.
Regardless, there’s some evidence that they’re reasonably successful. A 2004 study reported that “familiarity breeds attraction,” while a 2012 study found that friendship-based love (when two partners also consider themselves to be best friends) enhances relationship satisfaction. It makes sense why — once you’re friends, you often know each other enough to reliably ascertain whether you’d be a good match. You also probably share similar interests, tastes and senses of humor, and you’ve likely already done the legwork of meeting at least a few of each other’s friends and family. And who, of course, could forget the sexual tension — unlike strangers meeting for the first time, friends often have months to years of pent-up feelings and lust for each other, the likes of which can be explosive and passionate when they’re finally expressed.
Then there are the downsides, the biggest of which is the potential loss of friendship. What if you confess your feelings, but they don’t feel the same? And what happens if you break up? How might that affect not only your friendship, but also your broader group of friends as a whole? It’s a tricky situation, but for some friends, the allure is too tantalizing to ignore.
Twenty-eight-year-old Leanne (a pseudonym) from London started dating one of her close friends — we’ll call him Aaron — in 2015, after seven years of friendship. Throughout their platonic stage, Leanne had been in an abusive relationship with her high-school boyfriend, but had always “kind of liked” Aaron. One night in 2015, when the two of them went out for drinks (as friends), Leanne “clumsily made a move” on Aaron. “I kept asking why we’d never ended up together, saying we’d be so good on paper,” she tells me. “That was when we kissed for the first time, and it was thrilling, but awful. I felt so bad for cheating, but the moment also felt right. I started crying though, so the night ended badly.”
A week after their first kiss, Leanne and Aaron ended up sleeping together, which she says was “exciting,” but adds that they were so drunk, that it was, shall we say, a pretty soft launch. This was, however, the catalyst for Leanne leaving her abusive ex. “So I still see it as a hugely positive experience,” she says. After Leanne and Aaron properly got together, he told her that he’d “always been romantically interested” in her, but knew she was in a long-term relationship, and valued their close relationship, so was happy to just be her friend. The pair eventually dated for two years, and even moved in together, but broke up at the end of 2017. Although they were close friends for years, they had separate friend groups, meaning that although their break-up wasn’t particularly messy for their mutual friends, Leanne did lose some of the friends she’d met through Aaron. She’s now in a long-term relationship with somebody else, who she met by chance at a pub.
Unlike Leanne, whose feelings for her friend were reciprocated, redditor lovewithall found herself confused after losing her virginity to her mate. “I like him, and let him know that,” she wrote. “I asked him if he felt the same way, but he said he was still interested in the girl he was seeing on and off.” After talking more, it emerged that her friend was happy to keep sleeping with her, but was worried that their friendship would change — he also got irate when she suggested that she’d move on, but also didn’t confirm that he wanted to date her. “Am I just his second choice? He doesn’t want me to move on, but has no promises either. What should I do? I love him, and I honestly don’t think I can handle being his friend if he starts dating someone else.”
Of course, age is an important factor here. Younger couples might not be as experienced with communicating their feelings, approaching their budding romances with maturity or transitioning friendships to romances, and many, like Leanne, have problems making earnest, lasting friendships with the opposite sex. But as people age and learn new tactics for communication and maintaining relationships, the seemingly stark line between romance and friendship can occasionally become more fluid. Jesse, a pseudonymous 40-year-old in L.A., recently consummated a five-year “will they, won’t they” friendship with Joe, 45. Overwhelmed by emotions — which included fear over the loss of their friendship, excitement about their mutual feelings and a whole lot of horniness — they had a long talk about what had changed since they started having sex, how they felt about it and what sort of relationship they’d want to build in the future.
“The whole thing felt safe and respectful,” Jesse says. “We were already so close before we started sleeping together that it felt natural to talk about how we felt, and we both understood the gravity of what it would be like to give up our friendship. We’re both also experienced with relationships, so we were able to come to a very clear, mutual understanding of where we’re at.” Though both agreed they’d “drop everything” to be together, they decided to take things slowly and try to stay expectation free at first — that way, they could each adjust to their changing relationship and see if they still liked the direction it was heading before diving head-on into unfamiliar territory.
For those who want to start a romance with a friend, relationship therapist Simone Bose recently advised Guardian readers to sit with their feelings before declaring their undying love. “If you are going to take that step, ask yourself: Are you serious about this?” she wrote. Once you’ve made up your mind, Bose advised the best way to gauge your friend’s feeling is to flirt, but warned that you shouldn’t do so when you’re drunk. “You can behave in a more emotionally catastrophic way,” she said, echoing Leanne’s reflection above. And, if it doesn’t work out in the end, Bose advised that the best way to maintain your friendship is to keep an honest, open line of communication. Try not to take it too personally, either; sometimes friendships really are better that way — as friendships.
That’s not to say some couples don’t get their happy ending, though. If, as researchers once said, “romantic relationships are, at their core, friendships,” then you and your best friend might just have a chance. Just don’t blurt it out when you’re six Appletinis in.